I’ve been in Academia a long time, I started my PhD in 1977, and things have changed quite a lot over those forty odd years. In those heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, an academic taught, did research, wrote papers, reviewed papers wrote grant proposals and even found time to write books. There was also a valuable commodity, time; time to sit back and reflect during work hours. This could involve sitting at your desk with your feet up and your eyes closed or like
Charles Darwin and his ‘thinking path’, go for a walk or a run in the fresh air or just sit under a tree or lie back in the grass and watch the clouds go by as new ideas bubbled up in your mind.
Reflecting on life
When I was in my last year as an undergraduate desperately preparing for my final exams, I would, in between revision bouts, go and sit under a cherry tree outside the Agriculture Building and just let my brain rearrange all the facts that I had accumulated over the past four years of study into some sort of coherent order. It worked and much to my surprise I got a First Class degree. I’m a wee bit older now but it still works.
The important thing when I began my academic career was that there was an opportunity within the working day to gather one’s thoughts and let connections form. It didn’t necessarily have to be blue sky thinking, just a chance
Blue sky thinking or daydreaming?
to clear the turbid and muddied thoughts and get them into some form of order and allow you to process them into something worthwhile and hopefully clear your mind so that new exciting ideas break through and bubble out into the light.
Struggling to clear those turbid thoughts.
It’s all becoming clearer
In those halcyon days there were, in all the places I worked, well established and popular morning and afternoon coffee/tea breaks. In fact in Finland where I worked at the Agricultural Research Station just outside Helsinki, we even had breakfast together (early starters those Finns), and in my early days at Silwood Park not only was there morning coffee in the Refectory (Paddy’s to some of us), but in the afternoon we repaired to the Conservatory and Orangery where the redoubtable and doughty Pearl wheeled in her tea trolley and we, depending on the season and weather, either sat inside or reclined outside on the grass chatting and imbibing our drinks of choice. 😊
Back in the 1980s, and this may come as a surprise to the modern academic/researcher, we had typists (I met my wife in the typing pool) to wade through our hand-written drafts and type our papers for us. The along came technology and things began to change and not for the better. Personal computers started to appear on everyone’s desk, not just in the computer rooms, the tyranny of email replaced the paper mail (finding your post tray full of envelopes was much more satisfying than logging on and finding your email folder telling that you have 120 unread messages) and worst of all, along came electronic ordering and costing. In the old days, if you wanted consumable you asked the Departmental Technician for them, or if not in stock they would order them for you. Similarly, for quotes for equipment for grants etc. It makes no sense to me that academics should be responsible for ordering stuff themselves (Dreamweb?, Nightmareweb more like). If you don’t use a system daily then every time you do use it, it is a whole new time-consuming learning experience. Likewise, health and safety issues, surely much more efficient and cost-effective use of time to let the H&S Officers access the forms and do the assessments rather than the academic? I could go on, but I think you know where I am coming from.
All of the above and the huge increase in student numbers (in the UK at any rate) with the concomitant increase in marking and teaching related administration meant yet another erosion of reflective time and as the years progressed a noticeable decline in the number of people finding or making time to venture out of their research silos to have coffee breaks away from their desks and labs. Many academics now lunch in their offices. This has meant a reduction in collegiality and the very valuable opportunity to talk and listen to colleagues from other fields. When, after twenty years, I left Silwood Park, morning coffee in the Refectory had dwindled to just a handful of us entomologists☹ One of the many positive things of moving to Harper Adams was that there was (hopefully when Covid is controlled we can all get back there) a vibrant and very buzzy Staff Common Room which reminded me very much of my early days in academia. Until you experience it at first hand, you don’t realise how important a central, informal gathering place is to working life. A vibrant common meeting place has huge benefits for creative thinking, after all what is the most important part of a conference? Very rarely the talks; the bar, coffee and meal breaks are where it is at and the new ideas and partnerships are forged and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow found. The fewer the opportunities for relaxed social interactions, the fewer the good ideas we generate – coffee breaks, no matter how chatty, do, contrary to what some senior managers might think, improve productivity.
Without time to reflect one’s productivity goes down, thoughts are mired down in the turbid waters of toil and home and work life become entangled to a greater degree – I think the majority of us do our marking, paper reviewing, thesis reading, paper writing and in extremis, when working to a submission dead-line, our grant writing. This is not sustainable and certainly not good for our well-being. Do people still get proper sabbaticals, i.e. ones that the Department funds rather than having to apply to a grant body for one? In my thirty odd years of university life I never had a sabbatical.
Now that I am Emeritus I am discovering a whole new world of time; time to walk and think, time to sit and think and time to read and write. If it were not for the fact that I am not in my office every day and thus missing out on the coffee culture I could imagine myself on sabbatical. Having the space and the ambiance to think and interact is hugely important. As a concrete example, a couple of years ago I invited two colleagues of mine with whom I am writing a book down to our French house in the Languedoc. We had a very productive week, every morning working in separate rooms on the book, meeting up for lunch and then spending the afternoon relaxing and thinking.
Being productive away from the office
Since then, back in our respective work worlds, progress on the book has been glacial. Once international travel is back on the cards we plan to repeat the process and hopefully get the book back on course for publication next year. I have, not quite tongue in cheek, suggested to my Head of Department that he might like to provide the funds to send members of staff down to our French house where I will provide paper and grant writing workshops 😊
Time spent in reflection is not time wasted, like plants, when given space and the right conditions, ideas flourish and bloom.